The Mantras blow an intern’s mind

by Dave Roberts

The following review was brought to you by Red Bull. That’s not a plug; it’s an explanation. If you find this insane, you should see my notes.

Dead End Parking, a psychedelic/jazz/funk band out of Charlotte and the opening act tonight, is having trouble with the sound system. The soft voice of guitarist and singer Tony Eltora as he sings “Home,” a meditation on the shitty living conditions of a struggling musician, is drowned out by the instruments. This doesn’t faze the sparse crowd here at the Blind Tiger, who is mostly here for the main event and regard DEP as background music, a breathing stereo system at a party. A lone brunette shuffles about in the empty space in front of the stage in what could be called dancing in some circles. A girl in a paisley shirt and a Japanese hair clip sits with her friend at the bar, transfixed on the Yankees-Orioles game, her indifference setting the tone for the rest of the patrons. She claps for players hundreds of miles away who can’t hear her, but ignores the band that traveled an hour and a half to play here.

As if in response, DEP ups their musical ante. The tempo shifts higher, more energy, more distinguishable from its nondescript siblings that came before it, building, aided by the increased presence of the drums, into something with bite. This… this you can move to, not just sway. Nathan Carter, playing two synthesizers and a box that looks like a miniature mixing board at the same time, brings in the warbling electronics, imparting new energy like an instrument in and of itself.

A brief return to their mellow march, like a musical sorbet to clear the palate, and then the tone shifts again: darker, more in line with Ozzy metal than a Phish show. A ’70s porno guitar quality, akin to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme, then Pink Floyd’s spacey riffs come into play. Carter’s finger work becomes hyperkinetic, a blur in the scarlet glow of the stage light. At times he slaps his keyboard like a pair of bongos. A shifting kaleidoscope of style and tone, their show takes the listener on an aural tour across a myriad of musical realms.

After they finish Katie, a groupie, girlfriend or just friend of the band – it’s unclear – approaches me and, after discovering I’m a reporter, asks if I’m a “Mantras virgin.” I caught the last song of their set at Get Down!Town before the Greek step competition, and was impressed then, but decide it didn’t really count. If seeing them is akin to sex as she’s put it, then that first encounter was decidedly coitus interruptus, so I answer, “No.” She assures me they’re going to melt my skull. I shrug and order another Red Bull.

The bar is much more crowded now as the Mantras tune up. Just as they start, guitarist and vocalist Marcus Horth lights a cigarette, leaving it in his mouth as they kick off.

“I don’t think we’ve played here on a Friday night before,” announces Keith Allen, also of guitars and voice. “Cheers, everybody!” he says before downing a shot in the middle of the first song. The crowd is obviously full of fans, their love for them apparent in their shrieks. Their cover of “Fat-Bottomed Girls” is fast and light, very Phish. In the extended instrumental sections, a recurring feature of this group, they are playful, slowing then building to a maelstrom that whips the crowd up, culminating in a big damn finish. I order another, probably my fifth or sixth by now.

Stylistically a jam band, they would be far more at home in an outdoors arena. While I remember at Get Down!Town they filled the beer garden with joy, here their music seems restless, claustrophobic, an animal pacing in a cage, searching every corner for the tiniest crack of release, straining against its captivity. I can feel their guitars in my teeth.

My sympathies are with the bongos: They are underused, almost drowned out in the heavy thuds of their larger cousins and the electronic mayhem of the strings. Thrilling, throat-tearing arribas announce the emergence of a new course on the menu. The melody reels back and forth, up and down in scale, the drums powerful in my head like angry monkeys. They want that banana, damn it!

My first impressions of them as Phish-lite were faulty. These cats can rock it out. Relentless, they don’t want you mellow and swaying. They want you alive with movement, banging your head and strutting about with near loss of motor control, barely able to keep up with the wild pounding of the drums, the maddening undulation of the guitars, the light tickling of the bongos. The crowd screams as they finish.

Encore. Bass player Brian Tyndall rumbles out the intro with Flea-like enthusiasm, fast, tripping all about. The jungle is in it, a madness that threatens our collective sanity, back to full power, Captain, energy on full blast, torching any calm, setting it alight with a Molotov cocktail of rock. The roar settles just enough for the bongos to peek their head out and play a bit. They don’t get much time before the lead guitar, alpha male, reasserts itself. His cohorts join in the thumping aggressive fingering, bringing the floor alive with twisting bodies lost in the frenzied hypnosis of the rhythm.

Their intensity is astonishing, that they can maintain this pace for so long. Just when one thinks they can’t possibly continue, they crank it up a notch. Like snake handlers caught up with the Holy Ghost, the crowd has lost the will to resist them. Their detached air of hipster irony shed, they are experiencing one of life’s rare pure moments, where the mind is aware only of the present, free from the million little hobgoblins that distract us. The Mantras finish with a wild interpretation of the Knight Rider theme, dedicated “to David Hasselhoff,” that leaves us blissfully spent, drenched in afterglow.

“Those guys are solid as hell,” I overhear one of the crowd members say to his friend in the men’s room afterward. “Now let’s go do some drugs.” How any psychotropics could improve on the experience tonight is beyond me.

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